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A Brief History of the Augustinian Martyrs in Japan

Fr Thomas Masaki Imada and Fr Futoshi Matsho tell us the story of the Augustinians who gave their lives for Christ during the evangelisation of the 17th century. Today, 28 September, the Order commemorates these martyrs

In 2008, Blessed Thomas Kintsuba of St Augustine and 187 other martyrs were raised to the altars. Since then, every year, the delegation of Japan, together with the whole Order, remembers its martyrs and their history.

The original Augustinian mission to Japan began in 1602 with the arrival of two Spanish friars from Manila. Fr Hernando Ayala was the first to set his eyes on Nagasaki, at that time the main port in Japan for trade with Portugal, Spain and China. It was there that the country's first Catholic community settled, with more than half of its forty thousand inhabitants embracing the faith of Christ.

Seeing the dynamic, bustling activity of the city, Fr Hernando judged, wisely as it turned out, that Nagasaki would be the ideal place to establish the Augustinian mission. Quickly immersing himself in the local culture and language, Fr Hernando was soon able to preach without an interpreter. After working in Bungo and Hyuga (now Oita and Miyazaki) for a few years, he moved permanently to Nagasaki, where he built a church and monastery in 1612. However, the church building was demolished shortly after the local shogun (Japanese military and landlord) introduced a total ban on Christianity in 1614.

It was then that the harsh persecution of Christians began. During the first years of the tyranny he went into hiding, but on seeing that the faithful he served were being martyred, he decided to come out of hiding. He was consequently captured, and was beheaded on the island of Takashima, near Togitsu, north of Nagasaki, on 1 June 1617. This made Fr Hernando the first Augustinian martyr of Japan.

But not the last. In 1637 Fr Thomas, "Kintsuba" Jihyoe of St Augustine and Fr Michael of St Joseph, both Japanese and the last Augustinians in Japan, were martyred on Nishizaka Hill.

In the years between 1617 and 1637 a number of Augustinians, Augustinian tertiaries and many other men and women close to the Augustinians were martyred. Some were beatified and canonised, such as St Magdalene of Nagasaki, who was a tertiary, Blessed Brother John Shozaburo, the Oblates Michael Kiuchi Tayemon, Peter Kuhieye, Thomas Terai Kahioye, the tertiaries Mancio Scisayemon and Lorenzo Hachizo, Fr Pedro Zúñiga, Fr Tomás Terai Kahioye, Fr Bartolomé Gutiérrez, Fr Vicente de San Antonio Simoens, and Fr Francisco de Jesús Terrero.

Today, while Catholics are still a minority in the Asian country, they still keep alive the flame of history and the legacy of those who knew how to proclaim the Gospel in the face of adversity.



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